Snowden’s asylum effort hits roadblocks
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden’s options narrowed Tuesday as his globe-spanning, 21-country plea for asylum largely came up short, raising the possibility of a prolonged stay in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.
Some countries, including Germany, Poland, India and Brazil, rejected Mr. Snowden’s request for asylum outright. Others said he must make it to their soil to file a claim-currently an impossibility for the fugitive, given his lack of a valid passport or active travel documents.
Mr. Snowden’s remaining hopes seemed to lie with firebrand anti-American leaders in Venezuela and Bolivia, with Ecuador starting to hedge.
Highlighting the building tension and international intrigue, Bolivia protested late Tuesday after the plane carrying President Evo Morales home was forced to land in Austria after France and Portugal refused to allow it to enter their airspace.
In the Bolivian capital La Paz, Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca denied that Mr. Snowden was on board the aircraft.
“It’s an official plane, a presidential plane,” Mr. Choquehuanca said at a news conference. “The life of the president was put in danger over unfounded suspicions.”
Later, Austrian authorities also denied Snowden was aboard Mr. Morales’ plane. “He was not on the plane, and he hasn’t been in Vienna,” Austrian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Schallenberg told The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Snowden’s troubles don’t necessarily mean Washington will win his return to face criminal charges for stealing and leaking secret documents. U.S. officials privately warned that the outcome of the saga remains impossible to predict. Still, events of the last two days represent something of a diplomatic turnaround for the Obama administration.
Last week, when Mr. Snowden fled Hong Kong for Moscow and points beyond, both the Chinese and Russian governments appeared to ignore American pleas that they seize him. The U.S. appeared almost powerless to stop a 30-year-old former government contractor from jetting around the world in defiance of American wishes.
Now, a sustained private and public diplomatic campaign by the White House and State Department appears to have at least halted the odyssey. Events, said one senior U.S. official, are “trending right.”
Edward Snowden, the former U.S. government contractor holed up in the transit zone of Moscow's airport, has had slow responses to his requests to more than 20 countries for asylum. Bruce Orwall looks at the possibilities for Mr. Snowden.
Snowden’s Asylum Request to PolandNational Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden told Poland in an asylum request that he risks the death penalty at home.
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, who earlier appeared to be leaning toward granting Mr. Snowden asylum, said he would consider it only if Mr. Snowden somehow gets to Ecuador first. At the same time, Mr. Correa has repudiated as invalid a travel document issued to Mr. Snowden by Ecuador’s consul in London that might have helped him gain safe passage.
Similarly, Mr. Snowden on Tuesday quickly withdrew an asylum request he had submitted to Russia after President Vladimir Putin announced that the U.S. fugitive would need to stop his activism against the U.S. government if he wanted permission to stay. Russia has been cool to Mr. Snowden’s entreaties from the start, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his deputy, William Burns, also pressured Russian officials.
Yes, No, Maybe?A tally of results from the 21 nations where Edward Snowden has applied for asylum:
- REFUSED: Brazil, Germany, India, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia (withdrawn by Snowden)
- UNLIKELY: Austria, Ecuador, Finland, France, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland
- POSSIBLE: Bolivia: President Evo Morales said his country would study any request submitted. Venezuela: President NicolÃ¡s Maduro said: “He deserves the world’s protection”
- NO IMMEDIATE COMMENT: China, Cuba, Nicaragua
Mr. Snowden himself acknowledged his predicament. “Although I am convicted of nothing, [the Obama administration] has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person,” Mr. Snowden said in a statement released late Monday on his behalf by the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks.
He called the U.S. moves to prevent him from achieving asylum “old, bad tools of political aggression.” “Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me,” he said in his statement.
Mr. Snowden’s remaining hopes seemed to lie with Mr. Morales and Venezuelan President NicolÃ¡s Maduro, both of whom said in TV interviews this week that Mr. Snowden deserves protection.
Though both leaders were in Moscow Tuesday for a natural-gas producer’s summit, they gave no indication of whether they would consider granting him documents that would allow him to travel to their countries.
“All of humanity should protect him,” Mr. Maduro told reporters at a ceremony unveiling Hugo ChÃ¡vez Street in Moscow.
“I think we should do something for him and I will leave this decision to the people,” Mr. Maduro later told the Kremlin-backed channel RT before leaving Russia for Belarus. “We either help him or we close the door and forget about him.”
Mr. Maduro said Venezuela had not yet received Mr. Snowden’s request, though WikiLeaks said he applied. The Foreign Ministry in Caracas confirmed late Tuesday that Mr. Maduro had flown on to Belarus, but declined to comment on whether Mr. Snowden might be with him.
For Mr. Maduro, it might be rhetorically tempting to offer Mr. Snowden asylum, but such a move also would sink the new Venezuelan leader’s budding policy of rapprochement with the U.S. Last month, Venezuela’s foreign minister met with Mr. Kerry, and both promised to work for better relations.
Since taking office, Mr. Maduro has had to grapple with galloping inflation of 23%, a plunging currency and widespread shortages that made even toilet paper a scarce commodity. A confrontation with the U.S. would surely send the economy into an even deeper tailspin, posing a threat to Mr. Maduro as he attempts to consolidate his hold on power.
Mr. Morales, meanwhile, said his country would study any request submitted by Mr. Snowden. Asked if Bolivia would grant the U.S. fugitive asylum, Mr. Morales responded: “Yes, why not?”
Meanwhile, Mr. Snowden appears to be stuck indefinitely in the Moscow airport’s transit zone, and the U.S. appears to have no way to extract him. Russian authorities have given no indication that they would force him to leave that area. In a handful of cases, asylum-seekers have spent months in the airport.
Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer who views whistleblowing activities with skepticism, said Monday that Russia “never hands anyone over and doesn’t plan to” do so with Mr. Snowden. “He’s not our agent, he’s not working with us,” Mr. Putin added.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that handing over Mr. Snowden to “a country like the U.S., where the death penalty is practiced, is impossible.”
Mr. Snowden is wanted by U.S. authorities for leaking information about the NSA’s domestic and foreign intelligence-gathering operations, including an alleged NSA program to spy on European institutions.
Prosecutors have filed criminal charges against him under the Espionage Act in a U.S. District Court.
The former security contractor has applied for asylum to 21 countries in total, according to WikiLeaks. He submitted 19 applications, including the one to Russia that was subsequently withdrawn, to Moscow embassies via a Russian consulate in Sheremetyevo Airport on Monday. Previously, he had applied to Ecuador and Iceland.
In his letter to Poland, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Snowden argued that he was unlikely to receive a fair trial in the U.S. and highlighted the possibility of life in prison or death.
“As a result of my political opinions, and my desire to exercise my freedom of speech, through which I’ve shown that the government of the United States is intercepting the majority of communications in the world, the government of the United States has publicly announced a criminal investigation against me,” Mr. Snowden wrote.
He said he was being persecuted as a result of his decision to make public “serious violations” of the U.S. Constitution and United Nations treaties by the U.S. government.
Mr. Snowden arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on June 23 en route to Ecuador “via Russia and other states,” but was stymied after the U.S. canceled his passport and began pressuring intermediary countries that formed stopovers on his trip, according to WikiLeaks.
Mr. Snowden could ask Russia to issue him a refugee travel document under the UN convention on refugees, said Stephen W. Yale-Loehr, an attorney who teaches immigration and asylum law at Cornell Law School. “He would qualify presumably under the ‘political opinion’ factor,” Mr. Yale-Loehr said, citing one of the five criteria a person can use to achieve refugee status under the treaty.
Michael Bochenek, director of law and policy at Amnesty International, said Mr. Snowden doesn’t need to be physically present in a country to gain asylum. He said Mr. Snowden could apply to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for help gaining asylum in various countries.
A spokeswoman for the UNHCR declined to say whether Mr. Snowden had made an application, saying the agency can’t comment on individual cases.
As for whether Mr. Snowden could be sent back to Hong Kong, Mr. Bochenek said that would be up to Russia. Typically when people arrive in countries without the proper travel documents, they are returned to the country of departure on the next flight at the airline’s expense, he said.